"I have measured out my life in coffee spoons."
So says Alfred Prufrock in T.S. Eliot's famous poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." The image has stuck with me since I first read the line in college in the 1960s. It sticks because it is an assessment that is concrete but ordinary, forlorn but frank. It resonates with the part of me that seeks to evaluate life experience in real time.
When Ed Koch was mayor of New York City, he buttonholed people in the subway, asking effusively, "How am I doin'?" It is a useful question to ask oneself, I think. Honest answers could result in course corrections.
At my age, however, I am more inclined to look over my shoulder and evaluate the course itself. "How have I done?" I ask. Unfortunately, no fixed set of metrics is available for answering the question. Everyone has his own criteria. Some are better than others. A recent story in The New York Times got me thinking about the coffee spoons of my life, those insignificant details which might be more telling than they seem to be. The story was about Converse Chuck Taylor All Star basketball shoes.
When I was a kid, I got a new pair of Chuck Taylors every June at Auerbach's department store. Everyone called them tennis shoes. They had ankle-high canvas tops and rubber soles. When the white tops got dirty, I washed them in a bucket of soapy water and dried them in the sun. By the time I reached Highland High School, low-cuts were the fashion—black ones to match the school colors. I wore them with white wool athletic socks. The same socks were de rigueur for Bass Weejun penny loafers, the other must-have shoe in those days.
Wearing those shoes year after year was dictated by adolescent insecurity. They denoted membership in a certain social group—the in-crowd. To be an outsider in high school—to wear Hush Puppies with laces—was to be a pork chop at a vegan potluck. Only beta males were secure enough to show up occasionally in cowboy boots.
The Army took away my Weejuns 10 years later. At the beginning of basic training at Fort Dix, I was issued black combat boots. The platoon sergeant made me mail the loafers home in a cardboard box. No need for tennis shoes, either. We ran in boots, every day, mile upon mile. I wore the boots longer than I expected.
In the meantime, Chuck Taylors morphed into a "punk signifier of anti-fashion, anti-establishment views," Elizabeth Semmelhack told The New York Times. (She is the chief curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, and recently curated a Brooklyn Museum show called The Rise of Sneaker Culture.) Weejuns gained status as "classic." On its website, the G. H. Bass Shoe Co. asserts the loafer is the footwear of choice for the "fashion-forward crowd." Because I don't identify with either Sid Vicious or Ryan Gosling, those iconic shoes no longer have a place in my closet.
The combat boots are gone, too. I must say I was more engaged with them than with any other shoes I have owned. I spent countless hours in the barracks with my friends, sitting on footlockers talking, smoking and spit-shining our boots. It was as social as a quilting bee, and the resultant shine enhanced our "military bearing." Not that we cared a whit, but in practical terms, the better one's military bearing, the better one's treatment by the sergeants.
After parting ways with the Army, I returned to Utah, where I found collegiate fashion much changed. Bass Weejuns had been supplanted by Earth shoes. You wore them with flare-leg, corduroy Levis, blue chambray shirt and down vest. Designed by a Danish yoga instructor, Earth shoes had a thick sole offset by a posture-improving "negative heel." Nobody wore Nike or its running-shoe ilk. The Oregon-based company was in its infancy, and jogging hadn't caught on yet. I fell into step in cinnamon-colored Earth shoes.
I was still wearing them when I got a job in New England, not far from the headquarters of Converse Inc. Styles were different in that part of the country. People stared at my parka without sleeves and shoes without heels. In Boston, yuppies dressed to the nines in L.L. Bean rustic wear: chamois shirts and Maine hunting shoes in winter; polo shirts, chinos and Sperry Top-Sider boat shoes the rest of the year.
Every New Englander owned boat shoes. I probably wore out four or five pairs before my arches began to complain. After a few painful bouts of plantar fasciitis, I gave up boat shoes for cushiony Børns and Rockports.
I am evidently not the only one to forsake the fashionable for shoes with arch support. The Chuck Taylor shoe of my youth has now been improved with Nike's patented running-shoe technology, according to The New York Times. (Nike bought Converse in 2003.) The upshot is that the shoes look the same but feel better. Sales of 100 million pairs are forecast.
Choosing comfortable Rockports may be the only shoe decision I have made by myself. For most of my life, I have been a conformist, allowing others to choose my footwear. I wore the shoes I believed provided leverage, status or acceptance at a particular point in time (while Prufrock was in the kitchen fiddling with the coffee pot). That I won't be buying upgraded Chuck Taylors is not so much a telling detail as it is a rejection of past practice. Even if the shoe fits, I will no longer wear it.